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The Mental Habits of Innovation

We all know the myth of the sudden flash of insight that comes from nowhere. It is that "aha" moment, or that light bulb turning on in the mind. This is true to an extent. Einstein, for example, really did get flashes of insight while shaving in the morning. Of course, he was working on the particular problems he had insight into. He didn't suddenly have ideas for new kitchen gadgets or movie plots.

In other words, the innovations he came up, no matter how "sudden" the insightful idea was, came from past and present mental work. Like a singer who works at his craft for ten years and then becomes an "overnight success," innovative people only have "sudden" flashes of insight and new ideas because they have habitually worked and thought in certain ways for some time. To become an innovative thinker, then, why not start cultivating those mental habits?

Problems are opportunities. The concept of a "problem" may have a negative connotations, such as being a hassle or stressful, but any problem can lead to an innovation that improves our lives. Not knowing the time lead to small clocks on our wrists. Disease lead to sanitary sewer systems. Look for opportunity in every problem. Even a mundane problem like not having enough storage space in your home could lead to a new innovation. You might just build a plywood floor in the attic, or maybe you should invent a new type of outdoor storage unit.

Innovation starts with understanding the key elements. Wood or metal or glass are not key elements of a door to an innovator. An opening, a way to get in, a way to keep others out - these are key elements. Start with these, and soon you're wondering what other ways you can make a door. Could you design a door that is opened by your voice (nice when your hands are full), or one that shuts and locks itself when anyone else approaches? Look for the key elements in things.

Attitude creates innovation. In the creative problem-solving technique of concept-combination, you just combine two ideas and see what new idea or product results. The key to the exercise, though, is that you assume there will be a useful new idea. With that assumption, you can be sure that your mind will work overtime to produce something.

It may seem that a shoe and a CD have nothing to do with each other, but it took just a minute to imagine a CD player with headphones that only plays the music correctly if a jogger maintains his ideal pace. Assume there is something there and you'll often find something.

Play creates innovation. A playful mind is a creative mind. High IQ doesn't correlate with creativity, but put it together with playfulness, and you have an Einstein. Remember that he imagined himself riding on a beam of light in order to arrive at his theory of relativity. Why not start playing with things and ideas, in your mind and in your surroundings. Innovation should be fun.


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